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Perhaps you weren't listening to Focus on the Family's weekday radio show one day last November when James Dobson, the sixtyish head of the religious right's media giant, dropped broad hints about what a wonderful president of the United States he would make. Millions of other people were. And don't count them out.
That's the warning from Gil Alexander-Moegerle, the first ex-Dobsonite to write a book about the Colorado Springs-based ministry.
By some standards this tell-all on a preacher is tame. Dobson apparently is no sex-crazed hypocrite a la Jimmy Swaggart or Jim Bakker. In James Dobson's War on America, Alexander-Moegerle paints a picture of an arrogant, angry, self-righteous marketing genius, a Mercedes-driving religious zealot fueled by contempt toward people whose values differ from his own. And this critic was in a position to know: Twenty years ago in California he launched the radio career of Dobson, then a psychologist and family counselor. Alexander-Moegerle produced Dobson's first radio broadcast and spent a decade as his on-air sidekick, boardmember and chief aide.
"In many ways, I gave you James Dobson," Alexander-Moegerle writes. "Now I wish it were possible to take him back." The book, which will be published later this month by Prometheus Press, marshals statistics and testimony that Dobson's political influence is rising: His radio show is heard on 3,400 stations worldwide, 1,500 of them in North America. His media conglomerate, exempt from taxes as a religious organization, takes in $125 million a year, five times that of the better-known Christian Coalition. Focus gets at least 10,000 letters and 3,500 phone calls a day. And that's not all that comes into Colorado Springs. Thanks to Dobson's grassroots organizing, his followers have garnered so much power within the Republican Party that all of the contenders for the 1996 GOP presidential nomination trekked to Dobson's bunker for his blessing. Last December Newsweek called Dobson one of America's five most successful radio personalities, ranking him with Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern, Dr. Laura Schlesinger and Don Imus.
But of those, only Dobson wields his listeners as a political hammer. After moving to Colorado in 1991, he poured money and air time into the successful battle to pass the anti-gay-rights Amendment 2, which later was overturned by the courts. A couple of years later, when a U.S. House bill threatened restrictions on home schooling, Dobson told his listeners to complain to Congress. They caused the biggest switchboard jam in congressional history, and the bill was changed. Focus also turns complainers into political activists by conducting "community impact seminars" and strategy sessions throughout the country.
Alexander-Moegerle's complaint is that Dobson is accountable to nobody but a rubber-stamp, hand-picked board. Less visible in the mainstream than Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, Dobson refuses to debate or discuss issues with his critics. He shuns practically all contact with the press, which he condemns as hopelessly liberal. (Focus officials, who once sicced security guards on a Westword reporter trying to attend a meeting between Jack Kemp and Dobson, didn't return phone calls for this story.) You're not likely to see Dobson on Nightline anytime soon. Instead, at least for now, he just preaches to the choir.
Alexander-Moegerle portrays Dobson as a Type-A workaholic infatuated, by nature, with political power and afloat in a sea of praise from his devoted flock.
"I applaud the man as a family helper," Alexander-Moegerle tells Westword. "His books on parenting and marriage have been a tremendous help. And if he wants to take the message of Jesus Christ to the world and he wants to say 'You must all bow,' he has the right to do that. But if someone with that mentality goes to Washington and tries to make public policy based on his religious sectarian view, it's a violation of the separation of church and state. We'll never make it that way. We argue what is right based on American values, not religious values. I may want an America that doesn't abort its babies, but I don't want it to wind up like Northern Ireland. Dobson has the potential to lead us into sectarian religious violence."
Dobson's defenders probably will consider the book sour grapes. After all, Dobson fired Alexander-Moegerle in 1987 after the latter got a divorce and fell in love with a co-worker; Alexander-Moegerle unsuccessfully sued Dobson for his firing. The book describes that situation in more detail than the reader may want or need, but the former Dobsonite contends that he's more than just a disgruntled ex-employee. "I would certainly plead guilty to being a concerned ex-employee," he says. "Disgruntledness is an emotion. People have to read the book. Would they say I was driven by bitterness or that I raise good concerns? Everybody has to make that determination on their own.
"I'm a Christian, always have been," adds the 53-year-old Alexander-Moegerle. "But watching Dobson in action has given me serious questions about whether I want to be that type of Christian. I do not want to be driven by hate and divisiveness."
Dobson's holier-than-thou attitude can be attributed in part to his upbringing as a stubborn only child of a Nazarene preacher. In that moralistic sect, notes Alexander-Moegerle, people can become "purified" after they come to Jesus. Dobson apparently reached that sanctified state years ago. Once, co-host Alexander-Moegerle shared with radio listeners the standard Christian line about how "we're all sinners," only to get a rebuke from Dobson, who certainly didn't regard himself as a sinner.